USA TODAY Sports Weekly

Keys to victory

- – Steve Gardner

Defense does the work: Cardinals pitchers struck out the fewest batters in the majors last season, but they don’t need to overpower opposing hitters with such a strong defense behind them. Third baseman Nolan Arenado and second baseman Brendan Donovan won Gold Gloves for their fielding excellence, while Paul Goldschmid­t, Tommy Edman and Tyler O’Neill have been honored previously. The Cardinals ranked fourth in the majors in Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, so if their pitchers can keep the ball in the park, there’s a good chance someone will find a way to catch it.

Get everyone healthy:

The roster looks equal to or better than the one that won the NL Central Division last season. Perhaps the key to repeating as division champions is the health of the starting rotation. Lefty Steven Matz had a disappoint­ing first season in St. Louis as he battled knee and shoulder issues. Meanwhile, Jack Flaherty is the rotation’s wild card. Limited by oblique and shoulder injuries the past two years, Flaherty, 27, has ace potential if he’s 100%.

Outfield production: O’Neill and Lars Nootbaar will need to improve their numbers if the Cardinals hope to replace what Albert Pujols contribute­d (.270, 24 homers, 68 RBI) in his final MLB season. Dylan Carlson seemed to regress in 2022, posting an OPS under .700. However, the offense could get a jolt from top prospect Jordan Walker. A converted third baseman, Walker, 20, had a torrid start in spring training that might be enough to earn him a spot on the roster.

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